Texts: Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:5-21
In this strange new viral world, the internet has climbed into the driver’s seat. Twenty-five years ago it was a foreign space inhabited by a few brainy folks. And just look at us now, all digitally united! The only thing more we could really want (apart from seeing one another in the flesh again) is more bandwidth. Because, the more bandwidth you have, the better you stream.
I think (just my humble opinion, mind you) that if Paul the Apostle had been born in this generation he would have adored the internet. Just think of how quickly, and how much further he could have spread the gospel! And he would have completely understood the problem of bandwidth restrictions when you’re trying to get a message out to a lot of people.
Lacking the internet, Paul travelled the Mediterranean world on foot and by boat. One day he would be on a Greek Island, the next on the mainland in Macedonia. He was, by birth, a citizen of Rome born in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey.
As a Jew, Paul’s spiritual ancestor was Abraham. He joined to this noble faith, the way of Jesus Christ, following him as master, brother, friend, and savior. Paul’s mission was to tell the story of Jesus and his own story of redemption out of fearful living into joyful service, to all the world.
Paul was filled with faith, tirelessly enthusiastic about sharing it, and uniquely equipped to do so. After all, he spoke excellent Greek, Hebrew and Latin, and was equally conversant in Aramaic.
Acts 17 recounts the full splendor of Paul’s classically educated mind, live-streaming God in Christ Jesus to all listeners, whether receptive or not.
In synagogues and other places of worship across Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece, Paul declared that Jesus was the messiah, and shared the story of his teaching, death, and resurrection. This was received by some with interest. Others however, reacted with anger, perceiving Paul as a threat to their faith traditions and to recognized authorities in the spiritual community
After having been jailed, chased out of several locations, and generally leaving behind an uproar, Paul’s local handlers sent him on to the big city - Athens. Perhaps they thought he’d be less conspicuous there and they’d get a break from all the drama. They were mistaken.
Paul sized up the spiritual practices in the city and saw another great opportunity for the Gospel of Jesus to be shared. In synagogues and in the marketplace he argued passionately with people about God. The local philosophers, Epicureans and Stoics, responded by taking Paul to the Areopagus in Athens. It was rocky hill where organized discussions, open conversations, and formal judgments on capital crimes took place. They invited Paul to give a defense of his faith.
Paul seized the moment, going quite literally to center stage for a meeting of the minds. He was at ease on the Athenians’ own territory both physically and philosophically. Paul shared his own search for God and discovery of new spiritual wisdom and insight. This was brilliant, since Athens was known for embracing new philosophies. And it seems that Paul knew that.
Paul’s argument as presented in Acts is probably a summary. The brief statement would not have sufficed for the Epicurians and Stoics. The more articulate your presentation, the more honor you achieved. And we know that Paul was never at a loss for words; especially God’s Word.
“Athenians, I see how you are religious.” That word also means superstitiousand the mood is unclear, so we’ll never quite know if Paul was praising, critiquing, or just observing. “I see the inscription ‘to the unknown god.” It was a strong beginning. Paul was off to the races.
Paul announced God - who made the cosmos, and all things in it. Lord of sky and earth, who does not live in buildings of worship; who is not in need of anything we have; who is the One who makes life and breath and all that we are, all the ethnosthat live on the earth today, formed from a single primordial individual…
…God, who gave us the form of everything we know and experience. So that we would have cause to ask, who did this? And why are things so? So that we would wonder, and look, and find out that God is close, and entirely knowable; in whom is all our life, movement and being. Your own Cretan poet Epimenides, said that too, right? In what, about 600 BCE?
This is God! About whom some of your own poets have said “We also are generated of God”. Didn’t your Cilician poet Aratos say that in Fainomena? Some 300-odd years ago? And, of course, your Greek poet Cleanthes said it in Hymn to Zeus around the same time.
…So, (since both God and we are living) how could we ever have thought of God as humanly made, an ornament of metal or stone? Which God has accepted as our unschooled, undisciplined way. But now God says, this is the day to grow up; it’s time for us all to turn away from unjust living. To this end, God has sent us the greatest teacher of justice the world has ever known. And even raised this teacher from the dead, and promised that he will return.
You wonder whether there was silence, or bedlam when Paul finished. Acts only tells us that afterwards some of the philosophers were quite taken with the notion of resurrection. And that several well-known Athenians joined the party of Jesus that day.
Did Paul’s eloquent intellect turn the minds and hearts of people to Jesus there in Athens and in all the other places that Paul spoke? Perhaps. A really good argument can be irresistible. But more than that, Paul did what is commended in the letter of 1 Peter. He was passionate and reverent in accounting for the hope that was in him. Mostly he did it with gentleness too. In his own repentant turning toward justice, Paul had come to genuinely care for humankind and desired to give hope to all. And so Paul observed God’s commandment to love.
Observing God’s commandments can take some serious bandwidth. Just now we are being called to follow the commandment to preserve our neighbor’s health and welfare. Even when it means no travel, no elective surgeries, no sports, no dining out, no work, (or too much work), and giving up as much as we can to those whose need is greater than ours. Right now, by God, even church streamed by the internet is obedience to the commandments.
God’s saving word, God’s preserving and renewing work was present in the beginning of creation. Christians believe and serve that premise, participating in God’s trajectory from chaos to shalom. It is the whole mission of the church. We say so in our theology, but it’s even better when we live-stream it as Paul did; living as Jesus taught, a life inseparable from God. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.